“I wouldn’t just go to the UK and start building schools.”
- John Bisika, Malawi’s national secretary for education, science and technology
Madonna’s fumbling attempts at building a school – or maybe a bunch of schools – in Malawi is old news. But it keeps appearing in the media, and I get angry every time I read about it.
Some time in 2010, Madonna’s charity announced it would build an exclusive private girls’ school in Malawi. The project became mired in problems, including the wasteful spending of 4 million dollars, and in the end, no school was built.
Of course, the obvious incompetence and inappropriate use of funds is terrible – although you could argue that it’s Madonna’s money to waste. Far more abhorrent is the fact that apparently a village of people “surrendered their ancestral land” for the failed school project.
But what I find most disheartening about the whole debacle is that it oozes paternalism. To me, the name of the charity sums this up: “Raising Malawi.” I understand this title to have a double meaning, which I assume is intentional.
The first, most explicit meaning, relates to the charity’s main purpose, which is to provide support for Malawi’s “1.4 million orphans” (you can read about how that in itself may be problematic here). The implication is that the charity will raise (or help to raise) Malawian orphans. Apparently, Malawians need a foreign charity to intervene to help them with one of the most fundamental human activities, child rearing.
The second and more troubling meaning I take from “Raising Malawi” is that the charity will help to raise up the entire country. This implies that it is in some way inferior, or low. It also very uncomfortably draws a parallel between Malawi and a child. Painting the country as child-like and in need of “raising” is a direct throwback to the paternalistic discourse of colonialism.
Unfortunately, it seems that this attitude does not stop at the dubious choice of a name. After the original school project failed, Raising Malawi decided it was going to build not one, but ten new schools, in partnership with another NGO, BuildOn.
However, according to some people within the Ministry of Education, the Malawian government was not consulted before this decision was made. Raising Malawi denies this. If, however, this is true, it demonstrates the utterly paternalistic attitude of the charity. No developed country would agree to have a foreign organisation simply step in and build infrastructure without consulting with the government – why should Malawi be any different? The Secretary put it beautifully: “I wouldn’t just go to the UK and start building schools.”
Whether or not the allegation is true, what could Madonna have done differently to promote education in Malawi with all of her money? A good first step would have been to sit down with the Ministry of Education, Malawian organisations involved in education, and maybe a group of Malawian parents and teachers, and to ask them what they needed most. It’s quite possible that despite the poor condition of the first rural schoolhouse that Raising Malawi replaced, the real impediment to children’s education in that village was that the teacher never showed up to class, because he was not paid regularly. Or perhaps it was that the lack of electricity meant children could not study in the evenings. Or that the lack of running water meant girls had to spend hours each day carrying water, making them too tired to pay attention in class. Or that the children were infected by parasites, making them too weak to learn.
Or maybe they would have said that what was most urgently needed was a new school building, that kept out the rain and the blazing sun. The point is that it seems they didn’t ask. They simply decided that like caring parents, they knew best how to help raise Malawi.